By Susan Holzman
As editors, it is our job to shape and mold a text intelligently and tactfully. Although we inevitably insert our biases, we do our utmost to suggest and change only what is necessary to meld the text with its message.
I always have a problem with being assertive, saying that this is right or that is wrong. When a word choice jars me, when a collocation makes me tilt my head quizzically, when a lexical phrase leaves me wondering where I have been while the English language has changed so dramatically, my first reaction is that there is something wrong with me—something lacking in my knowledge. My variety of English is a product of who I am, where I live and have lived, what TV programs I watch, what books I read, who I talk to and so on. No matter how broad my experience may be, it is nonetheless limited. The writers I work with have their varieties of English that reflect their voices. Some do not have English as their first language; others were born in Britain, the US or South Africa. I want their final work to be a representation of their language within the bounds of what is considered accurate usage today.
The key words are “accurate usage today”. How can I know? Following are two examples from a recent newspaper article, “Don’t rub your eyes: Sunglasses are cheaper in Israel” (Davidovich-Weisberg, 2012):
The opening sentence of the article read:
“Sunglasses have always been considered an absolute necessity in surviving the Israeli summer…”
The choice of the preposition in after necessity did not seem right. I felt that something should be an absolute necessity for surviving. Had I been editing this piece, I would have had three choices:
- Leave it. The text is clear and intelligible. It does not make a real difference.
- Change it. The text sounds better to me. I will change “in” to “for”.
- Check it.
Given my indecision, I usually choose the third option. My first step in checking preposition use might be with a dictionary, such as Merriam Webster’s on-line dictionary:
Webster’s on-line gives a definition and some sample sentences. One of these gives an example of preposition use and it is necessity for. But the omission of a sample sentence using necessity in does not increase my confidence enough to change the author’s choice.
I could also have checked advanced learner’s dictionaries because they often list prepositional collocations. Checking Longman’s Contemporary Dictionary of English on-line dictionary (n.d), for example, gives me more confidence to change the preposition: There are specific entries for necessity for and necessity of, but none for necessity in.
I can trust that the lexicographers were thorough in their investigation of the collocations of necessity. These dictionary writers selected the most common and useful collocations to help learners use these expedient expressions.
However, I do not check dictionaries for questions of preposition use. The information included does not give me the evidence I need for saying with confidence that necessity in is not a reasonable choice. My reference in such cases is The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) (n.d.).
Here I learned that in a corpus of 425 million words, the combination necessity of appeared 1575 times. The combination necessity for appeared 670 times and necessity in appeared only 129 times. I made one last check. I wanted to see how often necessity for and necessity in were followed by gerunds(ing form). Necessity for was followed by a gerund 56 times while necessity in was followed by a gerund only 8 times. A final check told me that necessity in was used in written discourse, rather than spoken, and about half the instances were in academic publications.
The fact that this collocation appears in written texts, albeit rarely, indicates the collocation might be used in some varieties of English or that it might be within the range of acceptable usage, although not very common. Nonetheless, I have the hard evidence to support my decision about changing the author’s word choice. I would change the sentence to read:
“Sunglasses have always been considered an absolute necessity for surviving the Israeli summer…”
A few paragraphs later in the same article, the following sentence had me scratching my head.
“Fierce competition in the sunglasses market forces the franchises to innovate constantly and offer competitive prices throughout the year,” says Meir Rasin, CEO of Opticana, one of Israel’s largest eyeglasses chains.
Sunglasses market definitely jars me. Eyeglasses chain has a similar effect. I know that adjectives are not usually used in the plural form in English, giving us child psychology (even though it is the psychology of children) and cucumber salad, (even though it is a salad with cucumbers). When talking about compounds with market, we have the home market (the market for homes) and the consumer market (the market of consumers). On the other hand, there are farmers markets, commodities markets, crafts markets, and singles markets. COCA shows no examples of sunglasses market and only one of sunglass market. Checking for noun collocates that follow sunglass, we find Sunglass Hut (a chain of stores), sunglass association, sunglass endorsement, sunglass case and others, indicating that the use of sunglasses in this case is an error. Eyeglasses chain does not appear in the corpus. Eyeglass chain appears once, but not in the meaning of a chain of stores (i.e., a strap or a cord for glasses) . Eyeglass store appears a few times; the phrase eyeglasses stores does not. The corpus reveals a number of other singular nouns collocating with chain: restaurant chains, supermarket chains, grocery chains, drugstore chains and theater chains to name a few. So now armed with confidence and self-assurance, I make the following changes:
“Fierce competition in the sunglass market forces the franchises to innovate constantly and offer competitive prices throughout the year,” says Meir Rasin, CEO of Opticana, one of Israel’s largest eyeglass chains.
Through the COCA site, it is possible to do similar searches in Google books, Time Magazine, and The British National Corpus. Use of COCA gives me the feeling that I am serving my editing clients well and making my editing decisions based on evidence, rather than on instinct or personal preferences.
Davidovich-Weisberg, Gabriela. “Don’t rub your eyes: Sunglasses are cheaper in Israel.” Haaretz, May 13, 2012. http://www.haaretz.com/business/don-t-rub-your-eyes-sunglasses-are-cheaper-in-israel-1.429634
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online, s.v. necessity http://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/necessity
Merriam Webster’s on-line dictionary , s.v. necessity http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/necessity
The Corpus of Contemporary American English” http://corpus2.byu.edu/coca/